'One of the Astana guys hit a cone and went straight into the wall of a house'
With just a third-category climb on route to Tarragona, I was expecting today to be fairly relaxed, but a strong wind made my first day in the white jersey of combined classification leader pretty stressful.Thursday, September 5
Thursday, September 5
Stage 12: Maella - Tarragona 164.2km
A three-man breakaway went away after just 5km and, with the best-placed man over an hour down in the overall standings, their lead ballooned to over seven minutes before the sprint trains ate into it later in the stage.
As we went through a little village with around 50km to go, I recognised it as a place I had been on training camp with my previous team, Ag2r, a couple of years ago.
Riding into the main street – which was only the width of a car and had been made even narrower by a row of green traffic cones to stop people parking at the side of the road – my former Ag2r team-mate Rinaldo Nocentini happened to be riding alongside.
"Hey Noce, do you remember what happened the last time we rode through this village?"
"Oh yeah! That's the day we didn't see the stop sign and Mikael Cherel got hit by a car, wasn't it?"
"Yeah. Hope the same guy's not out driving today!"
I only had the words out of my mouth when one of the Astana guys, Maxim Iglinsky, hit a cone and went straight into the wall of a house, taking my Saxo-Tinkoff team-mates Michael Morkov and Roman Kreuziger with him.
As first the wall, and then Iglinksy were inspected by the elderly woman who lived in the house, Michael and Roman remounted to rejoin the peloton.
Approaching the first of two intermediate sprints, with 25km to go, the three breakaways hovered a few seconds clear but were reeled in a couple of kilometres from the second one with 15km to go.
Intermediate sprints have a three-second time bonus for the winner with two seconds and one second for the next two riders across the line. While there was no plan to go for the intermediate sprint today, I soon found myself asking my Italian team-mate Matteo Tosatto to lead me out from a kilometre away.
"Nico, stay calm, stay calm," came the response, so we eased off.
Suddenly, though, race leader Vincenzo Nibali, third-placed Alejandro Valverde, fourth-placed Chris Horner and seventh-placed Ivan Basso all appeared at the front and it looked like they were all going to go for it. As we approached the sprint line, however, there was no mad gallop. I was riding near the front and was on Basso's wheel when the Italian put in a little dart to get the time bonuses.
Basso went at the last second and nobody else reacted. I was on his wheel and followed him. I could have probably sprinted flat out and taken the extra second but I didn't kill myself and the two-second bonus came easy today.
The finale of today's stage was deemed to be dangerous enough to move the safety zone out two kilometres to 5km from the finish.
This meant that if you crashed or had a 'mechanical' in the final 5km, you would be given the time of the group you were in when the incident occurred.
Even though it was dodgy, with narrow roads, tight roundabouts, and even a concrete wall dividing a tunnel in the middle of the road, today wasn't as dangerous as some of the other finishes, especially the one in Seville the other day.
With a slightly uphill finish, it was inevitable that there were going to be splits in the peloton and time gaps between riders. As the finishing straight came into sight I was just keeping an eye on where my main rivals on GC were and, judging by the results on the stage, we were all doing the same thing.
As world champion Philippe Gilbert finally took his first victory in the rainbow jersey, Valverde was 32nd rider across the line with me on his wheel, followed directly by Nibali, Basso and fifth-overall Joaquin Rodriguez, while Horner was just 10 places ahead of us.
My intermediate sprint brought me to within 31 seconds of leader Nibali. It also gave me an extra two points towards the points competition, which means I am now third in that, just one point off Valverde and eight points off the green jersey of Daniel Moreno.
Those intermediate points went towards the combined classification too, so I increased my lead in that and, with a five-point cushion over Horner, I'll wear the white jersey again tomorrow.
Maybe that mid-stage sprint will look stupid if I lose five minutes on Sunday but Horner and Valverde are only 15 seconds behind me and they've both taken plenty of time bonuses on this Vuelta.
Sometimes you have to seize any opportunity you can get to make up time. Today was one of those days.
Vuelta a Espana
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